Professor Tim Spector is well known for his work during the Covid-19 pandemic but he also wants to change the way we eat, he tells Sophie Morris
I miss my breakfast. My beloved morning meal, a non-negotiable daily event, seemed to fall away of its own accord some months ago. I call my friends to discuss the absent porridge and croissants, and they confess to missing their breakfasts, too. I blame Professor Tim Spector, gut health champion and co-founder and public face of Zoe, a personalised nutrition company that wants to improve global health by mainstreaming why food matters - and encouraging intermittent fasting.
My husband is amused. He’s long eaten two meals a day because that’s what he feels like, and I’ve said he should eat more regularly. I’ve been influenced, I realise, by Zoe. I’m far from being the only one. The app-based nutrition programme has 150,000 users and half a million Instagram followers.
What is it? An approach to eating that has hundreds of thousands of (mostly) women rapt with its eating advice. Is it a diet? I ask Spector, who is granting i a rare interview before a busy January for the brand. “For some people, yes,” he admits, though he disagrees with the label. “Many journalists call it a diet, or a diet app. But I think they are misinterpreting what this is.”
If it’s asking you to track some foods and avoid others, it sounds like a diet. “The idea is to get people to think in 12-month blocks,” Spector explains. “It’s not a 12-week diet; it’s a way of eating for life.”
Nutrition matters Zoe’s guiding principle is that what we eat impacts on the contents of our gut, or microbiome, which governs our overall health. “Nutrition is ignored by the medical profession, seen as not real science,” says Spector. “I want to change people’s attitudes to it.” His approach engages me because while he is selling stuff, it’s information rather than the nonsense supplements and vitamins that most nutrition companies peddle.
While Zoe officially launched seven years ago, the programme in its current form got going in 2022. But 2023 has really been its year, and a huge success story for Spector. You may have heard of him before, whether through the app or one of his bestselling books The Diet Myth, Spoon-Fed, and most recently Food for Life, which comes out in paperback next week (Vintage, £12.99).
Spector is also a medical doctor, a genetic epidemiologist, and lead researcher behind the world’s biggest-ever community health project - remember the Zoe Health study, which helped us to track Covid symptoms while the Government partied? That’s all thanks to Spector.
If you’ve been in a bunker since lockdown and haven’t come across him, new tie-ins with two respected UK brands are about to change that. His BBC Maestro course, The Science of Eating Well (£79, currently £47.40) offers 20 short video lessons covering the Zoe approach to eating well for life. Meanwhile, M&S is rolling out the M&S X Zoe Gut Shot, a £2 drink containing “five billion live cultures from 14 different strains of friendly bacteria”.
While I haven’t forked out the required £600 a year for the personalised programme, I feel I have ingested a huge amount of information about Zoe in recent months. Both purposefully and subliminally, as Zoe ambassadors such as Davina McCall and Dragons’ Den’s Steven Bartlett pop up in my feed, showing off bright yellow triceps stickers, the trademark Zoe continuous glucose monitor (CGM).
The year’s most popular health trend Whenever I spot someone scooping up handfuls of nuts but studiously avoiding crisps, I know they’ve been Zoe’d. If a restaurant-loving friend starts to schedule 6pm dinners, they’ve got to her, for sure. Have you noticed a friend fretting about her 30-a-week, muttering about muffins or blue poop, or spending more than her mortgage on the three K’s - kefir, kimchi and kombucha? All Spector’s doing.
Zoe discovers how an individual’s blood fat and blood glucose levels react to different foods, based on at-home test kits. “We’ve always thought that everybody was average,” says Spector. “But,” he continues, “there’s a tenfold difference in how people react.” With this information, the aim is to avoid foods that spike blood sugar and fat levels, then work to improve our gut microbiome - an umbrella term for the trillions of bugs living in our large intestine.
Users report improved mood, energy levels, and weight maintenance. “You’ll be sleeping better and more in tune with your own body,” Spector explains. “Doctors never ask about energy levels.” Long-term benefits, though impossible to quantify, should include reducing the risk of chronic disease.
Weight loss While my body no longer craves breakfast, something about skipping meals feels clandestine. “Some people will lose weight and others won’t,” says Spector. “This isn’t a plan for someone who instantly wants to lose 10 kilos, because we believe those quick fixes always fail.”
Are Zoe users set to be the faddy, demanding, or quietly abstemious ones at every social event for the rest of their lives? What do they do after a successful year of breakfast-skipping when December rolls round to ruin everything? “I don’t let my principles get in the way of socialising,” Spector insists. “It’s really important for our health that we don’t get too uptight about things, and when there’s an important social engagement we don’t not go to it because of our food issues.”
Does he have any advice for going out at this time of year? “It’s very hard to avoid ultra-processed food, you’re going to be surrounded by it. I generally follow the 80 per cent rule. On occasions like Christmas and New Year you’ve got to expect you’re not going to have perfect scores or a perfect diet. Try to compensate for the rest of the week.”
There are other apps that claim not to be diets, like Noom, which promises: “Stop Dieting. Get lifelong results.” But when you sign up, as I have numerous times, you are given a strict calorie count and daily weigh-ins, along with nutrition advice (advocating the low-fat approach) and psychological insights into why we eat and drink as we do. “I don’t agree with any caloriecontrolled approaches because the science says they fail for the vast majority of people and distort our idea of food quality, food structure, and food timing which are all really important, and also food pleasure,” Spector says.
I’m glad he brings up pleasure, because it’s the missing ingredient in so many health-led approaches to eating, which seem to gloss over the fact that food is not, in fact, just fuel for most people. “Food is about enjoyment,” Spector says. His plantbased daily menu will, however, appear spartan to some. In his defence, it does include coffee, red wine, beer and curry. He’s also a fan of dark chocolate.
He is glad that calorie counting organisations are on the wane, pointing out that WeightWatchers in the US has almost “given up” as it pivots into a company offering people with obesity access to doctors who can prescribe the hugely successful and controversial weight loss drugs Ozempic or Wegovy (different doses of semaglutide prescribed for type 2 diabetes and weight loss). “It’s a game-changing medication for people with severe obesity and eating problems,” says Spector. “Where I have problems is the cosmetic use of it, in Hollywood stars who are just getting a little bit podgy.”
Should we shift the focus away from weight loss altogether? “It [weight] is a taboo subject in the UK and we’re seeing the consequences. We’ve moved to the idea that doctors and nurses shouldn’t weigh people, even in pregnancy, as it’s fat shaming. I think that’s very wrong. If you don’t have an eating disorder, weighing yourself regularly is helpful, just like taking your blood pressure or pulse is helpful.
“Clearly, what you eat determines lots of things in your body: your gut health, your mood, your risk of diseases and your bowel habits.
“Weight is one of those consequences of what you eat, so just to say, for political correctness: ‘We’re going to stop one of those important parameters,’ is ridiculous and we should get rid of it.”
In particular, says Spector, pregnant women need advice because obesity in pregnancy causes problems for the unborn children, too. “It’s just not being addressed,” he says.
How do we know it works? Spector says they’re the only nutrition or genetic company that trials their product. Around 140,000 took part in both the “Big Poo Review” into bowel habits and an intermittent fasting study. “None of the others do. None of the vitamin companies or probiotics or health gurus. We’re out on a limb but happy with the results. Each year, as we learn more, the product gets better.” Critics point out the data is all self-reported, rather than derived from clinical trials.
Is the NHS doing anything well in this field? “Very little,” Spector says. “The guidance hasn’t changed for years. There’s still very little about ultra-processed foods. They’re still indirectly promoting these foods because they think it helps the manufacturing base of this country.
“The country is slowly getting more and more obese and we’re getting poorer because of the consequences of all these people who can’t work because of obesity. It’s a total disgrace.
“We’ll look back in 10 or 20 years’ time and ask why we didn’t stop this earlier. Why did we let it continue just because of the lobbying power of big food companies, just like with cigarettes.”
Risk factor Zoe says it’s not for anyone with a history of eating disorders. “It’s unlikely to be particularly harmful, but we want to be sure we don’t promote obsessional eating habits,” says Spector. But some doctors say it is affecting the “worried well”, who start to fear eating carbs or monitor their blood spikes obsessively.
The story of my missing breakfast is connected to intermittent fasting, a concept I first heard of a decade ago when Dr Michael Mosley published The Fast Diet. Eating everything on some days and being careful on others sounded sensible, but when I read the small print I found you had to eat almost nothing for two days, just 5-600 calories. No thanks.
But while Zoe doesn’t decree fasting, it has found that a 14-hour window can increase energy levels along with improving mood and reducing hunger pangs, according to the selfreported results of 30,000 participants - and my own experience.
As Spector points out, when I confess my daily fantasies of croissants and cinnamon buns, he’s not on a mission to ban breakfast. “It’s about working out what works for you,” he insists. “Our CEO Jonathan Wolf can’t bear skipping breakfast and goes crazy if you try to time-restrict him. I sometimes have a very late breakfast, or have it instead of lunch.” In fact, Spector recommends using this meal to experiment. “It’s all in your hands to have it or not have it, to make it high protein, high fat or high carb. It’s the perfect self experiment to do and we find many different responses.”
In that case, please excuse me. I’m off to spend the rest of my break experimenting with fluffy pancakes and almond croissants.